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Iran/Russia: Caspian Division Causing Rift

  • Michael Lelyveld

Iran calls Russia's agreement with Kazakhstan on Caspian division illegal, as discord rises over delays in a five-way border pact. Tehran's open conflict with Moscow seems to mark a new stage in the Caspian dispute that has dragged on for years.

Boston, 17 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Iran stiffened its resistance to Russia's moves in the Caspian Sea this week as it criticized a bilateral border accord with Kazakhstan.

In recent days, Iranian officials have shown various shades of disapproval for a pact signed Monday in Moscow on dividing the northern Caspian. Taken together, the statements may mark Iran's most open rift with Russia in the decade-long effort to settle Caspian borders among the five shoreline states.

After nearly four years of negotiation, the supplementary protocol to a 1998 border agreement between Russia and Kazakhstan calls for joint development of three disputed oil fields. The bilateral agreement appeared to solve one problem in the Caspian while deepening another.

Iran has repeatedly protested two-party deals before an overall settlement is reached that takes its interests into account. But it has usually taken care to avoid direct criticism of Russia, preferring to voice anger at proxies instead.

Last November, for example, Iran condemned a bilateral Caspian agreement between Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan as illegal, both in public and in a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. But Tehran glossed over the fact that Russia had reached similar division pacts with both countries, which were simply completing the triangle.

Iran's resistance has been aimed at blocking a Russian division formula that would give it about 13 percent of the sea bottom, based on its coastline. Tehran insists it is entitled to at least 20 percent of the entire Caspian as an equal partner to treaties with the Soviet Union in 1921 and 1940.

This week, Iran seemed ready to enter a new phase in confronting its disagreement with Russia head-on.

On Wednesday, Iran specifically rejected the deal between Russia and Kazakhstan, although they are both at the far end of the Caspian from Iran's presumed sector.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi said that, "The conclusion of agreements of this kind will delay the pace of five-party negotiations among the littoral states in order to reach a collective agreement on the legal regime of the Caspian Sea."

Asefi added that, "The Islamic Republic of Iran has always announced that reaching a permanent solution on issues relating to the Caspian Sea requires the consensus of all coastal countries," the official news agency IRNA reported.

Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would pursue bilateral and trilateral accords to advance a division solution following the failure of a Caspian summit in Ashgabat last month. He also raised alarms in Iran by flying from the summit to the Russian base at Astrakhan, where he ordered naval exercises to be held this summer.

Speaking Wednesday in Mazandaran province, President Mohammad Khatami was more careful than Asefi to avoid naming Russia, although he said that Iran "is against any unilateral and provocative action in the Caspian Sea," according to IRNA. Khatami also told military graduates that Iran's forces should be "vigilant and quite ready" to repel foreign threats.

Khatami's reported remarks focused on opposition to "intervention by foreign forces" in the Caspian, an apparent reference to U.S. donations of unarmed patrol craft to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan.

Although the United States has sent forces to Central Asia since the attacks of 11 September, none have been stationed in a Caspian country. On 29 April, Kazakhstan Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev said the country would cooperate with the United States on Caspian security issues, but he ruled out the presence of U.S. forces, Interfax reported.

On Tuesday, Iran's national-security chief Hassan Rowhani delivered a more pointed message to Russia's ambassador, Aleksandr Maryasov, telling him that Iran "dismissed any bilateral or trilateral agreement about using the resources of the Caspian Sea as lacking legal validity."

The Kazakhstan deal may be particularly galling because Khatami and Putin agreed in a March 1991 joint declaration that their two countries "do not officially recognize any borders in this sea" before an overall settlement is signed. Russia ignored that pledge almost immediately.

On Wednesday, IRNA quoted the English-language "Tehran Times" as calling the Russian deal "unacceptable," saying the accord was "ignoring all international law regarding inland seas and the need for consensus over the Caspian Sea's new legal regime."

Azerbaijan has been notably spared in the Iranian rhetoric of the past week, although the country's parliament, Milli Majlis, voted Monday to ratify its bilateral border pact with Kazakhstan. The reason is that Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev is expected to visit Tehran tomorrow, making a trip that has been put off repeatedly for over a year.

It is unclear how Iran's blanket objection to bilateral deals will affect its own negotiations with Baku. Last July, an Iranian gunboat chased two Azerbaijani research vessels from a disputed oil field, creating the most dangerous military incident in the Caspian so far.

The border issue is seen as one of the biggest obstacles to an overall Caspian solution. But Iran may only be able to solve it with the same bilateral approach that it has condemned.

Increasingly, Tehran's many objections all seem to reflect its discord with Russia, which has made little effort to smooth over the problems this week. Putin now seems to feel that friction may be the only way to make progress on the Caspian issue after years of fruitless diplomacy.

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